The single greatest hazard to your employees may be largely outside your control. It’s not hazardous machinery, working at heights, or dangerous chemicals. It’s driving.
Year after year, transportation occupations account for a disproportionate number of workplace injuries and fatalities. Even outside the transportation industry, roadway incidents remain a top cause of workplace deaths.
Regardless of whether you’re a long-haul trucking company or a construction contractor, a company with a fleet of salespeople or a small business with employees who commute by car, few businesses escape the impact of motor vehicle accidents and other transportation-related hazards. Incidents cost employers both time and money: insurance claims, healthcare costs, property damage, liabilities, loss of productivity, and more.
Injuries and fatalities
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), tractor-trailer and heavy-truck drivers had the largest number of fatal occupational injuries in 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available) with 840. Overall, transportation incidents accounted for 40 percent of all occupational fatalities in 2017, a total of 2,077.
Yet safety and health concerns in transportation workplaces go beyond motor vehicle crashes.
Tractor-trailer truck drivers are three times more likely to have injuries resulting in days away from work than other workers, according to the BLS. The most common injuries among truck drivers are slips, trips, and falls, followed by overexertion.
Causes of injury among truck drivers include:
- Pushing and pulling containers;
- Lifting heavy items while loading and unloading a truck;
- Getting into and out of a vehicle; and
- Prolonged sitting and maintaining the same position, sometimes with poor posture, while driving.
NTSB ‘Most Wanted’ list
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) wants Congress, employers, federal regulatory agencies, vehicle manufacturers, and state legislatures and agencies to make 267 changes—46 in the next 2 years—to address transportation safety problems.
While many of the changes the board is seeking, such as incorporating vehicle collision prevention systems into newly manufactured vehicles or implementing a comprehensive strategy to reduce speeding-related crashes, would not directly involve employers, others would. Those include:
- Eliminating operator distractions;
- Ending alcohol and drug impairment;
- Ensuring operator medical fitness, including screening for and treating obstructive sleep apnea (OSA); and
- Managing operator fatigue through the scheduling of hours-of-service (HOS) and work breaks.
Highlighting the contribution of undiagnosed and untreated OSA to many preventable accidents, the NTSB has recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) develop guidance for commercial drivers, employers, and physicians regarding the identification and treatment of OSA. The board also called upon the FMCSA to establish a program to identify commercial drivers at high risk for OSA and require that those drivers provide medical certification of having been evaluated for sleep apnea and effectively treated, if necessary.
Worker fatigue and untreated OSA in vehicle operators can be deadly. Both were identified as causes in a commuter train derailment in which four people were killed and at least 61 persons were injured.
On December 1, 2013, a southbound Metro-North commuter train out of Poughkeepsie, New York, headed for New York City’s Grand Central Station derailed. NTSB investigators found the locomotive’s operator had fallen asleep due to undiagnosed severe OSA exacerbated by a recent circadian rhythm shift required by his work schedule. The train was traveling at 82 miles per hour (mph) on a 6-degree left-hand curve with a maximum authorized speed of 30 mph.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates the Metro-North commuter line, began a pilot program of evaluating operators on the line for OSA.
Citing the Metro-North derailment and other rail and trucking incidents, the FMCSA and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on March 10, 2016, to establish requirements to evaluate safety-sensitive transportation workers for moderate to severe OSA.
The FMCSA/FRA plan was modeled after Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidance for evaluating commercial pilots for OSA.
Under the FAA guidance:
- Pilots are screened for OSA using an integrated assessment of history, symptoms, and physical/clinical findings;
- If further evaluation is needed, an OSA risk factor evaluation will be performed by an aviation medical examiner (AME);
- If ordered by an AME, pilots must complete a laboratory sleep study or home study within 90 days;
- A pilot is not allowed to fly once diagnosed with OSA; but
- Upon submitting documentation of effective treatment, the FAA will consider the pilot for a special issuance medical certificate, allowing the pilot to resume flying.
The FMCSA and FRA requested public comment on how to establish a similar program for operators in motor carrier and rail transportation. On August 4, 2017, the agencies withdrew their rulemaking.
Fatigue management programs
The NTSB also wants the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to set up a program to monitor, evaluate, and continuously improve motor carriers’ fatigue management programs to reduce fatigue-related risks among their employees.
The FMCSA, along with several Canadian regulatory agencies, has led an effort to develop a model driver fatigue management program called the North American Fatigue Management Program (NAFMP). The NAFMP resources include driver and trip scheduling information; fatigue management education for carrier executives and managers, dispatchers, drivers, drivers’ families, and shippers/receivers; information on developing a corporate culture to reduce driver fatigue;and information on sleep disorder screening and treatment.
NIOSH safety research agenda
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a partnership to research safety and health issues in the transportation, warehousing, and utilities (TWU) sector as part of its National Occupational Research Agenda.
The Transportation, Warehousing, and Utilities Sector Council released an updated agenda in February 2018, with objectives that include:
- Reducing deaths and injuries among TWU workers;
- Reducing musculoskeletal disorders among TWU workers;
- Promoting and improving the health and well-being of TWU workers;
- Increasing knowledge about the association between TWU worker exposures (chemical, physical, and biological) and adverse health outcomes, and effective prevention and control strategies;
- Increasing knowledge about the role of worker characteristics and impairment on TWU worker safety, health and well-being, and effective prevention strategies;
- Encouraging prevention through design;
- Proactively addressing the safety implications of emerging technology;
- Supporting safe workplaces through organizational-level factors, programs, and measures;
- Increasing understanding of how changes in the economy affect the safety and well-being of TWU workers; and
- Fostering translation of research into practice to improve the health and well-being of TWU workers.
Research and application in trucking
NIOSH believes technology and improved safety policies and procedures have the potential to reduce injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in trucking. These recommended improvements include:
- Collision avoidance technologies, such as collision warning systems, autonomous emergency braking, and in-vehicle monitoring systems;
- Corporate policies and procedures like fatigue management programs, driver training, and coaching programs to prevent distracted driving and encourage seat belt use;
- Research into the impacts of economic pressures, scheduling, and nonstandard work arrangements on vehicle crashes and injuries;
- Ergonomic evaluations of truck cab environments;
- Company policies and procedures for working on loading docks, climbing and working on trucks, and getting into and out of trucks to reduce slip, trip, and fall risks; and
- Policies and procedures that promote a stronger safety culture in the trucking industry.
Suggestions for employers
What should transportation sector employers do to reduce worker injuries, illnesses, and fatalities? Federal and state agencies have a variety of suggestions.
The NTSB wants trucking companies to purchase vehicles with collision-prevention technologies such as forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and blind-spot detection, and require their employees to use the technology.
Washington State’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) has a Trucking Injury Reduction Emphasis (TIRES) program with suggestions for employers to prevent or reduce common trucking injuries. The L&I’s suggestions for employers include:
- Identifying hazard areas;
- Providing mechanical aids and training to move materials at all work locations, as well as proper lift training for employees;
- Balancing the types of work an employee performs;
- Making sure all equipment is in proper working order;
- Making sure all vehicles have features for employees to climb on if needed;
- Providing elevation stations to aid in moving around a truck;
- Making sure equipment is available to reduce dangerous ascents and reduce mechanical force needed to open and close parts of a truck;
- Selecting vehicles or equipment with designs for worker safety when buying new vehicles or equipment;
- Keeping all work areas clean and well lit to prevent slips, trips, and falls;
- Keeping employees off elevated surfaces and providing platforms with guardrails or fall protection if employees must work at an elevated position, as well as training employees how to safely work on elevated surfaces;
- Providing ladders and ladder safety training;
- Providing access stairs or ladders to the cab and trailer and maintaining trailer ladders and cab steps; and
- Identifying and marking all blind corners.